When I was diagnosed with autism, at 13, at first I didn’t think anything had changed. I was still the same as I’d always been, except now I had a name for what made me different. My passions were still the same — reading, writing, art, and video games. My ambitions were still the same — going to grad school and becoming a writer, editor, or professor.
The fact that my disability, and the accommodations that I require because of it, did not crush my higher-education dreams is a testament to the democratization of higher education. While college is still not accessible to everyone, more and more people are able to attend. Low-income, first-generation, mentally ill, and disabled students now frequently share classrooms with the middle- and upper-class neurotypical students who have traditionally made up the college population.
My college experience to date has taught me two things: one, there is a lot that non-autistic people don’t know about being autistic; and two, many of those same people want to learn more. Several professors have approached me, eager to learn how to tailor their teaching methods to accommodate the changing demographics in their classes, an attitude that I find profoundly encouraging.
Here are some ideas for administrators and professors who wish to shape a culture at their institutions in which autistic students are welcomed, supported, and encouraged to participate fully in college life.
- Examine the advocacy culture on your campus. To foster a healthy atmosphere for autistic students, steps must be taken to ensure that they are encouraged to advocate for themselves, and that the community is willing and able to listen to their voices. If there is an advocacy group for autistic people on campus, find out whether any autistic people are in that group. If not, look for a way to reorganize it so that it can better serve the community it seeks to advocate for.
- In all advocacy efforts, center the attention on autistic people themselves instead of those of non-autistic allies, parents, siblings, or friends. This will help your institution ensure that its primary concern is helping its disabled students, not the people around them.
- If you join a partnership with an organization, check its reputation within the autistic community. If autistic students come to you with concerns, listen to them, and defer to them in matters regarding the lived experience of being autistic. Don’t tell autistic students that they’re too “high functioning” to understand the struggles of “really” disabled people. When in doubt, support groups that campaign for acceptance rather than awareness.
- Appreciate that autistic students often have additional obstacles to overcome. When I was in high school, I benefited greatly from having a father who was a full-time professor at a local university and a mother who was a high-school teacher with a master’s degree in economics. Both are familiar with the academic environment, and neither was intimidated by facing a table of counselors, psychologists, and teachers to negotiate accommodations that would improve my learning experience. A child from a working-class family, however, may have parents who are unable to take off work, or are unfamiliar with the education bureaucracy. They may not have had access to the diagnostic or accommodation records that the parents of more-privileged students do. An overreliance on documentation when providing help to autistic students can leave out many autistic people.
- Recognize that disability can look different in people of different genders. Diagnostic criteria are often built around male patients, leading to the underdiagnosis of women. Autistic women are under immense social pressure to mask their symptoms, and therefore pass as neurotypical more often than autistic men do. Similarly, girls with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) tend to daydream, while boys may be more hyperactive. Understanding the underdiagnosis of women is essential in providing services to all students in need.
- Use appropriate language. There is a continuing debate about whether person-first (person with a disability) or identity-first (disabled person) language is appropriate. The deaf, blind, and autistic communities generally prefer identity-first language, while people with physical health conditions generally prefer person-first language. If you’re unsure, you can always ask the specific disabled person you’re talking with which he or she would prefer. Avoid using euphemisms like “differently abled,” “handicapable,” “diffability,” and “challenged.” The word “disability” is not offensive or rude, and it shouldn’t be treated as something to hide or avoid.
- Don’t try to assess how affected a person is by his or her disability. Sorting people into the “high functioning” and “low functioning” groups is arbitrary, rude, and harmful. Giving backhanded compliments, like telling an autistic person that she doesn’t seem disabled, is as misguided as talking about overcoming autism, curing autism, telling people that they “suffer” from autism, or referring to autism as an epidemic.
Higher education is the path to bettering oneself, getting a better job, and becoming a more productive member of society. It is anathema to everything that higher education should stand for to bar disabled students from these opportunities. Most colleges are dedicated to moving away from their segregated and cloistered paths in this regard, and that is a good thing.
All students benefit from diverse and welcoming campus communities. Disabled students can gain access to opportunities traditionally denied to them, and nondisabled students learn to see disabled people as humans full of potential, deserving of respect and compassion. Isolation helps nobody and feeds ignorance and inequality.
I was pleasantly surprised by my institution’s interest in supporting my advocacy efforts, and it is my hope that my fellow autistic students in colleges across the country will have similar experiences. Growing up, we are often led to believe that we are burdens, disappointments, drains on society. But nothing could be further from the truth.
All we want is acceptance, and we are tired of being told to keep quiet. This is your chance to be part of the revolution — to choose the right side of history. And all you have to do is listen.
Clara Joy Gibson is a sophomore at the College of the Holy Cross.